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Movie About 1969 Pattee Library Murder to be Released

Most don’t know her name but almost every Penn Stater knows her story. Nearly 44 years later, students still whisper about what happened to Betsy Ruth Aardsma, the 22-year-old graduate student who was murdered in the stacks of Pattee Library.

The investigation into the case is still open. Police were never able to identify who stabbed Aardsma on November 28, 1969. Police, reporters, family, friends alike have been haunted by the same question for more than four decades: Who killed Betsy Aardsma?

There have been rumors surrounding her murder since it occurred. Some claim they can hear hear her screams as they study in Pattee; others claim a flower is placed at the spot of the murder each year.

Those misconceptions are what Tommy Davis, a senior film student, hopes to clear up through his feature-length film titled “Betsy.” The trailer was recently released for the film, which will be one of the first visual representations of Aardsma’s story. Numerous articles and a book have been written about the murder, but this will be the first feature-length film on the subject.

“This is one of those stories that I always thought would be different to see than to read,” Davis said. “When you see things unfold, there’s a different perspective than when you read it on a page. I hope the audience can appreciate that this is a new medium to get the facts.”

Davis’s interest in Aardsma’s story began with a simple Google search after his first day of classes during his freshman year. Aardsma’s name had been an answer on a crossword puzzle in one of his introductory communications courses. Davis admits he probably didn’t get the answer correct but thinks he had heard about the murder at one point or another from a family member.

During his freshman year, Davis researched the topic independently by reading old newspaper clippings. The next year, he chose to make a documentary “short” for class on Aardsma. He received positive feedback from executives from 48 Hours and the investigative unit of the CBS Evening News crew.

Davis soon realized there was much more to Aardsma’s story than a 22-minute “short” could contain. He spent the next several years researching, writing, shooting, and editing a feature-length film about Aardsma for his student portfolio.

“I was reading everything I could, seeing everything I could within reason,” Davis said. “I fell into the greater cause of it all and quickly saw this wasn’t a ghost story. It became so real to me.”

There were several angles to choose from for the project, but Davis wanted to focus on Aardsma’s life, rather than her murder.

“My purpose was always Betsy’s life and how the people around her fit into it,” Davis said. “For me, it’s about the humanity of it and feeling for the victim because Betsy was real. I spent a lot of time on her early life, before she came to Penn State. Establishing her as a true person was important to me.”

Davis was the writer, producer, cinematographer, editor, and director of the film, which included a cast of more than 60 actors — most of whom had connections with Penn State’s theatre department — to recreate actual events. Davis’s attention for details caused his filming to span over ten cities in multiple states. The project was self-funded, so Davis couldn’t afford to build elaborate sets, causing him to rely on his ability to location scout.

To make the film as accurate as possible, he traveled to Holland, Michigan, where Aardsma grew up; the University of Michigan, where she received her undergraduate degree; and Hershey, where her boyfriend lived. Davis conducted dozens of interviews with experts, investigators, and those who knew Aardsma. Some of those interviews were filmed to be included in the film.

There are some modern elements, but Davis said he strived to make this film appear to be set in the 1960s.

“I’m very particular with details. Without an enormous budget, it’s hard to keep everything within the 60s world,” Davis said. “I tried to find places that matched what the real places looked like. It was always to enhance detail, never to sacrifice Betsy’s story.”

The State Theatre will screen Davis’s film on January 19 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $8 for adults and $6 for senior citizens and students.

Even after “Betsy” is shown at the State Theatre, Davis said he will continue researching the case. Ultimately, it was his desire to see the case solved that drove his efforts over the past few years.

“The more awareness the trailer can get, the more awareness the film can get,” Davis said. “The more awareness the film can get, the more awareness the truth can get.”

About the Author

Jessica Tully

Jessica Tully is a first-year law student at Penn State's Dickinson School of Law. She graduated in May 2014 with degrees in journalism and political science.

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